“That Thing Where You Tell Us What We’re Good At”

At my Kenyon College commencement address, Lamar Alexander, the Secretary of Education under George H. W. Bush, quoted Alex Haley: “Find the good, and praise it.” At the time, it meant little to me. Although it is the only thing I remember from the entire speech, I have no idea why I remember it. I was not impressed by having Mr. Alexander as our speaker — he simply represented conservative politics to me. I was not excited about his role as Education Secretary, since I was definitely not going to become a teacher. Additionally, I was not a person who was naturally drawn to seeing the positive in things, so I didn’t think this phrase was even particularly applicable to me.

Except somehow it was. “Find the good and praise it.” I still remember it after all these years, and there is little that has impacted my teaching more. It seems like such a simple practice, and yet it is not nearly as easy as it sounds.

As described in previous posts on The Power of the Positive and Neuroscience, humans are naturally wired to scan their environment for problems or errors, and we often feel compelled to tell the whole truth – warts and all. However, we can be truth-tellers without telling the whole truth, and sometimes it’s really important that we do so.

Like so many things, I have learned this lesson from my students.

We were in the final week before the end of the first semester, and in the throes of finishing up final drafts of our Capstone papers. Students and teachers alike were feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and irritated. One day at the end of morning meeting, as we were transitioning to academic instruction, Nate pulled me aside, and asked, “Ms. Taylor, when are we going to do that thing where you tell us what we’re good at?” I knew immediately what he meant, but I had entirely forgotten that I had promised to provide it.

“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at.”

This was a practice that I had formally begun the year before at the conclusion of our Leadership Camp ceremony – a description of each student at his or her best. I had indicated that we would do something similar as part of our celebration of the fall or winter holidays, but I hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it.

Nate beat me to the punch by directly requesting what he, and the rest of the class, needed. It was time to show faith in our students, to demonstrate that we wouldn’t give up on them, and to encourage their positive contributions, no matter how small. Nate recognized the importance of telling them “what they’re good at” before I did, and I am profoundly grateful that he had the courage to point it out to me.

“That thing where you tell us what we’re good at” is a process akin to panning for gold. The first step is to envision each student with a singular focus. What is true about this child? The entirety of the truth is there – rocks, mud, silt, and all. that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-2Narrowing the vision, and selecting different lenses through which to see, is like running clear water over the muck and allowing the pebbles and dirt to be washed away. Eventually, only the golden nuggets are left behind. Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” The golden nuggets are “the good.” They are what remain after the layers of defenses, and shields, and mistakes, and poor choices have been washed away. Every student in every classroom has golden nuggets just waiting to be revealed. Some of them are easy to see; it is a joy to hold these students’ gifts up to the light and celebrate them. However, for other students, the golden nuggets can take effort to uncover. It is for these students that this process is the most important. For many of these students, a teacher may be the first person who has ever helped them to see themselves in a purely positive light – free of hidden put-downs, backhanded compliments, or veiled barbs. These “golden nuggets” may not be the whole truth, but that doesn’t make them untrue, nor are they any less true if they are described in isolation from the rest.  These visions of possibility allow students to perceive their best selves. This can be a tremendously powerful experience.

So, when was I going to tell them what they were good at? It was a great question, and a great moment, and yet I almost missed it – this overt cue. Instead of acknowledging the import of his query, and providing him with a sincere response, I jokingly responded, “I don’t know. Maybe when I like you better!” Nate laughed. I laughed. The moment passed. But later that evening, upon reflection of my day, I recognized my error, and I immediately began planning how to incorporate this ritual into the tea party that was already scheduled for the end of the week.

It is tradition at Gamble for the junior high students to celebrate the end of the imagefirst semester with a high tea. Students and teachers dress up in fancy attire, we decorate the classroom, practice etiquette, and serve fancy tea and cookies. I decided to fold the individual strengths ceremony when I “tell them what they are good at” into this formal and celebratory occasion.

In preparation, I spent many hours filtering through what I knew about each of my students and sifting out the negative pieces. Ultimately, I was able to write a true and unique statement for each of my students, describing his or her “best self.”

The highly anticipated day arrived. Girls arrived in dresses and bows, male imageteachers helped the boys tie their ties, Each student group spread tablecloths and arranged centerpieces to convert our daily work space into a festive reflection of the season. We poured tea, served cookies, and then it was time.


To set the tone, I shared the following excerpt from Aspire by David Hall.

This story was told to Hall by an Indian shopkeeper:

“I grew up in Calcutta among the poorest of the poor. Through education and hard work my family was able to break the shackles of poverty. My mother taught me many great things. One of the most important was the meaning of an ancient Hindi word. In the West you might call this charity, but I think you’ll find this word has a deeper meaning. The word is “Genshai” (GEN-shy). It means that you should never treat another person in a manner that would make them feel small. As children, we were taught to never look at, touch, or address another person in a way that would make them feel small. If I were to walk by a beggar in the street and casually toss him a coin, I would not be practicing Genshai. But if I knelt down on my knees and looked him in the eye when I placed that coin in his hand, that coin became love. Then and only then, after I had exhibited pure, unconditional brotherly love, would I become a true practitioner of Genshai. Genshai means that you never treat anyone small – and that includes yourself.” [1]

I explained to the class that as a component of not “treating them small,” I wanted them to see the “best self” version of themselves that their teachers saw in them. I wanted each of them to hear themselves, and each of their peers, described in this way because “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”

Students will take these types of ceremonies seriously if the teachers work to imageestablish a formal tone. To set the stage for this event, I placed each child’s “best self statement” inside of a gift box to symbolize that not only was this my gift to them, but that each of them was a gift to our community, and to our world. To prepare the space for the occasion, I ceremonially displayed the boxes in the front of the classroom, dimmed the lights, and played soft music.

While students truly love hearing about themselves and each other in positive ways, they need guidance and direct instruction on how to listen appropriately, so that they create a space that is emotionally safe for every member of the community. Feeling vulnerable is uncomfortable for most of us, and knowing that you are going to be spoken about publicly – even, or perhaps especially, when this is done positively – can often lead to laughter, or even inappropriate behavior, as a means to relieve the discomfort. Being directly instructed about how to manage themselves in this type of situation helps to dispel the nervousness and anxiety that many students may experience. They need to be reminded that we applaud equally for every individual, and that any comments that might possibly be seen as critical are a violation of the principles of community. They need to be provided with clear expectations about the importance of being quiet and attentive as each person’s individual statement is read.

After establishing all of these expectations for my students, the room was hushed and serious as I began the individual reading of the “best self” statements for all 50 students as well as the 4 staff people who were with us.

Together we recognized James, for whom sitting still and not blurting out answers is a constant challenge, but this statement is also true about him: “You are one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. You are conscientious about making sure that everyone is included, and you can’t stand it when things are unfair. I can’t decide whether I am more proud of you for trying to throw the game when you realized that the Outsiders impressionistic lesson was rigged, or for the encouragement and companionship you offer to Kim (a student with Down Syndrome) on every field experience. You are a gift.”

And Margo: “One of your most noteworthy character strengths is gratitude. You always remember to say thank you – even when it’s for helping you redo an assignment that has been handed back to you for corrections over and over again. You hate to make mistakes, but you must learn to be gentle with yourself. It is through mistakes that we learn and grow; we must embrace them! You are a gift.”

And Denise, who struggles academically more than any of our other students, and who tends to be discounted by her peers as a result: You are often under-appreciated in our community, but where would we be without your ready willingness to help? From providing a pencil to someone who lost theirs, sharing your annotated reading with those who don’t have one, or taking on extra duties in the classroom, all of us lean on you. For all the times we may have forgotten to say thank you, well . . . ‘thank you’ from the bottom of our hearts. You are a gift.”

And on and on, until each student had been acknowledged and had seen his or her unique contributions to the group as a whole. This took the better part of an hour – a beautiful hour of student engagement, support, and attentiveness. After four months together of learning to follow expectations and procedures, figuring out how to interact with each other, and tackling rigorous academic content, like Algebra I and the Capstone Project, we were dearly lacking in energy, patience, and enthusiasm. However, in the space provided by that hour, we came together in the final moments of the semester to celebrate and recognize the progress and growth that each student had achieved individually, but that had truly been accomplished in conjunction with each other.

I knew that I had taught them well, when after the last statement had been read, many students immediately noted that I had not received one. Two young ladies took it upon themselves to write a “best self” statement for me. Their statement mirrored my tone and verbiage, ending with “You are a gift.” How powerful it was that, as a group, students understood that when we do things as a community, it is imperative that all members are included. It was unacceptable to them that anyone was left out – including me.

Did these “best self” statements reflect how students always behave in the classroom? Most certainly not. Negative behaviors attract our attention readily. The 4:1 positive to negative interaction ratio is much touted as being critical to student success, but it is so hard to achieve. Even when providing positive feedback, it can be so tempting to temper praise with “the whole truth”, or what I call, “the but”. “The but” can take many forms; in each, the positive feedback is subtly turned into a partial criticism. This strips the compliment of all of its intended power. Listen closely to yourself or others when positive reflections are provided; you may be startled by how often the tribute is undermined by some version of “the but.” Sometimes, the recipients – children and adults alike – will even add “the but” themselves. We are so uncomfortable with our own goodness. As Marianne Williamson said, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Providing “best self” statements helps each of us to fight against the temptation to focus of faults and flaws, and to reinforce the importance of those things we do best.

Managing a classroom requires frequent behavioral redirection. Making academic progress requires the pointing out and correction of error. Students regularly hear teachers reflect on what they are doing poorly. It is important that they also have opportunities to hear themselves described in their most positive light. It provides them with a possibility to live into, invites them to see themselves in this way, and engages them in the process of their own growth and development. It sends the message that they can be successful, that the adults in their life believe in them and their ability to succeed, and that we won’t give up on helping them to become their best selves.

Students absolutely love seeing themselves through a wholly positive lens; it is that-thing-where-you-tell-us-what-were-good-at-1profound to see how much stock they put in this, and how often the words we give them re-emerge later as a way in which they describe themselves. As teachers we hold tremendous power in influencing how students view themselves. This is a weighty burden, and a responsibility that we must not take lightly. Don’t forget to “do that thing where you tell them what they’re good at.” It will likely mean more than you will ever know.


[1] Hall, Kevin. Aspire: Discovering Your Purpose through the Power of Words. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.


Pay Attention

I don’t like teachers.

The first day of school is always fraught with anxiety for teachers and students alike, and this was intensified for me as I was beginning a new position. Other teachers had already warned me about Malia, who I knew was returning to a general education classroom from a program for students with behavioral disorders. Many of my colleagues indicated that they thought she would remain in the behavioral placement for the rest of her high school career. Although this unnerved me, it didn’t sway me from committing to try. To ensure that we got off to a good start, I approached her desk and extended my hand to introduce myself. Before the words were even out of my mouth, she turned away, facing the wall, and said, “I don’t like teachers.”

This was not an auspicious beginning. “I don’t like teachers.” But the next day and the next, and the day after that, I continued to cheerfully greet Malia by name each morning. It rapidly became clear that she had the potential to be a good student, and that she wanted me to see this in her. Woven between bouts of being disrespectful, she shared insightful comments, and, on the days she did her work, she demonstrated good understanding. It was certainly not smooth sailing. Malia was involved in verbal and physical altercations far too often. Her grades fluctuated based on her emotional stability. But by the end of the first semester, she was spending significant time in my classroom after school. Despite her challenges, she managed to pass that year and to move on to the 11th grade, and even the naysayers had been swayed into letting her continue in the general education environment. That following year, I moved to a different building, but Malia remained in contact with me, inviting me to every choir concert and other major events. 

This from the girl who had once so rudely turned away saying, “I don’t like teachers.” However, the greatest and most beautiful irony occurred several years later, when she told me that she had decided to pursue a degree in education. Perhaps some day, she will, in turn, profoundly impact a struggling student.

Teaching is at least as much art as science, and paying attention to student needs requires vigilant application of artistic skill. Most public school classrooms are comprised of 25-35 students, each of whom arrives at school every day with animage abundance of needs — tangible needs such as school supplies, a lunch, or a band-aid, as well as intangible ones like a check-in, a hug, a word of caution, or, like Malia, just plain-old-fashioned attention. How can teachers possibly recognize and address all of these many needs, and teach content, too? They can’t, but making a conscious effort to pay attention to student needs every day might be enough.

All teachers have stories of students who challenge their authority and who openly push them away. We often react with hurt, or anger, or self-doubt. Traditional educational pedagogy seems to validate this personalized reaction – the assignment of rigid consequences, removal from class or from school, and zero-tolerance policies are all in alignment with this idea that disrespect of authority and failure to follow expected procedures must not be tolerated. While it is true that students must be held to high behavioral expectations, it is imperative that teachers understand that this disrespect, these apparent “rejections,” are often opportunities to see a student’s vulnerability, and are very misguided invitations to establish connections.

This is part of the art of teaching — the ability to step back from the moment of interaction, and examine the subtlety contained in the big picture. What is the student telling you that is not being directly spoken? What clues are available in tone and body language? What can be inferred through an examination of situations that have occurred previously? What outside information about the student provides insight into the current behavior? It is only through this careful and conscientious examination of the broader context of the interaction that the deeper message can be discerned.

This concept, that misbehavior provides clues related to unmet needs, is not a new one. It dates back to the research of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, in which they identify four “mistaken goals” that lead to misbehavior:pay-attention-to-needs-2

  • undue attention
  • power
  • revenge
  • assumed inadequacy/avoidance

The premise of their philosophy is that when children misbehave, it is a misguided attempt to fulfill the essential need of all humans for belonging. “Children are social beings. Thus their strongest motivator is the desire to belong socially.”[1] When children are struggling to demonstrate appropriate behavior, they indicate an underlying feeling of a lack of belonging, and the mistaken use of inappropriate behavior to attempt to belong. The theories of Adler and Dreikurs have continued to be studied and utilized by psychologists, parents, and educators.

A helpful resource when applying this philosophy to educational practice is the “Mistaken Goal Chart.” (see link) This table identifies the behaviors most typically associated with each of the four mistaken goals, a description of the mistaken goal, adult feelings and behaviors that often occur in response to the related misbehavior, and strategies to assist the child in re-gaining an appropriate sense of belonging through meeting the underlying needs that the behavior is concealing.

It should be noted that students generally demonstrate a range of behavior that falls into multiple “mistaken goal” categories; however, there is often a predominant category in which a student’s behaviors tend to cluster. Through the observation and awareness of the emergence of this pattern, teachers can begin to address underlying needs.

Ultimately, I developed a powerful relationship Malia. She regularly visited my classroom after school, preferring this to going home, and remained in touch with me long after the end of her tenure in my class. Establishing this relationship required that I saw beyond their initial hostility and looked deeper to the underlying needs that were being revealed through the behavior. While, initially, it appeared that Malia was pushing me away, in actuality, she was crying out to be noticed and was desperate to be accepted for who she was – problems and all. Her exhibited behavior indicated that her mistaken goal was “revenge” – the behavior was an attempt to hurt others or get even; my related feeling was “hurt.” The underlying belief associated with this mistaken goal is, “I don’t think I belong, so I’ll hurt others as I feel hurt. I am incapable of being liked or loved.”

With Malia, I followed the advice of Adlerian disciples: Show you care, encourage strengths, and avoid punishments and retaliation. Malia’s outward behavior may have been demanding that I keep my distance, but what she was actually saying was, “Help me belong. Love me unconditionally.”

This is not the same thing as “Allow me to behave in any way that I wish,” or “Like everything that I do.” There is a common misconception among children and adolescents that being cared about and supported is the same thing as being given permission to do as one pleases. By no means is this the case. Rather, guiding students toward true belonging and loving them unconditionally requires holding them accountable for their behavior while providing correction in a way that keeps the behavior separate from the person. Although “what you do” may not be acceptable, “who you are” always is.

Knowing students as individuals is critical in order to decipher their needs, but this can be nearly impossible when teachers, especially those at the high school level, are working with more than 100 students over the course of each day. This is precisely why misbehavior is an effective, even if problematic, way for students to demonstrate needs.

Managing student misbehavior may be the most difficult part of teaching. Establishing rigid consequences and/or removing students from the classroom or the school are tempting palliative quick fixes. They at least temporarily stop the disruption – a short-term fix. During the 2011-12 school year, the US Department of Education counted 130,000 expulsions and roughly 7 million suspensions among 49 million K-12 students—one for every seven kids.”[2] Utilized in isolation, however, these approaches don’t help to improve children’s behavior, which is the needed long-term fix – both from the perspective of managing a functional classroom, and from the perspective of helping students “develop into thoughtful, intelligent, inclusive human spirits who contribute to the stewardship of our community and planet.” While this mission statement is specific to Gamble, there are few, if any, teachers who would state that this isn’t the ultimate goal of teaching.

When viewed through the lens presented by Adler, student misbehavior is a misguided means to address an unmet need. If teachers only focus on the behavior without examining the unspoken needs that are driving the behavior, the problems will continue to occur, and will likely escalate.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Teachers are human too, and it is natural to feel hurt, reactive, and retaliatory in the face of student resistance or disrespect. Here are some strategies to help navigate the murky waters of student misbehavior. 

  • Q-TIP = Quit Taking It Personally

Much of the time, student behaviors are related to other things going on in their lives. Teachers are in the role of a safe adult who regularly provides correction; often students will take this opportunity to act out. We better serve our students when we can detach ourselves from misbehavior. Our correction is far more effective when we are able to not personalize problem behaviors.

  • Use behaviors as a tool to gather insight into student needs

When students are acting out, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there a pattern to the behavior?
  • What leads to the behavior?
  • What purpose does the behavior serve? What is the student getting?
  • How can you help the student achieve this purpose without evidencing the behavior?
  • Seek out every opportunity for relationship building with students

This happens gradually and over time, but every interaction counts. Remembering to smile and say good morning, asking about their weekend, checking in with them when they seem down are all things that help develop relationships. While the development of relationships with students is not considered a “measurable outcome” on the bubble tests, it is a required precursor to academic gains.

  • “Find the good, and praise it.” Actively and intentionally seek moments for students to see themselves as their “best self”
  • Provide positive feedback at every opportunity
  • If you struggle to find anything positive, look harder. See past the challenges. Remember, you are issuing an invitation – a possibility for them to grow into
  • Be careful to avoid back-handed praise. Steer away from qualifiers such as: “When you don’t,” “Even though you usually ___________, this time you _____________.”

Directly addressing unmet needs, and teaching students alternate methods to meet these needs, not only assists with the challenging work of classroom management, it also actively works to change behavior. This strategy teaches students that the adults around them are working to help them to be successful, rather than simply punishing them for their failures.

Student misbehavior is difficult to ignore, and it increases in intensity if the underlying issues are not addressed. Students rarely present these needs overtly; it takes a lot of courage and insight, more than most students possess, to identify problems and ask for help. More often than not, teachers need to infer these needs based on exhibited behavior concerns. This ability isn’t something that is taught in the esteemed schools of education. Perhaps it can’t be taught. Perhaps this is what makes teaching more art than science.

Additionally, this filling of student needs can’t be measured. None of the bubble tests students take, the data talks they engage in, or the multitude of scores that will be aggregated and disaggregated in order to determine a student’s progress, a teacher’s worth, and the effectiveness of a school, will ever come close to measuring a teacher’s ability to pay attention to student needs. And, yet, it remains crucial to an educator’s success, because if underlying needs are not addressed, none of the instructional components that the high-stakes bubble tests try so hard to quantify will matter.

 Pay attention to needs. See misbehavior as a form of communication. Look for mistaken goals and proactive ways to address them. Provide students with the critical sense of belonging that they seek. It is so easy for student needs to get lost in the shuffle; noticing and responding to them is truly an art. And it is this – not test scores, not grades, maybe not even curriculum – that students will remember.

That idea is beautifully described in this letter http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/what-students-remember-most-about-teachers, which begins, “Dear Young Teacher Down the Hall.”

So from one teacher down the hall, remember this. “At the end of the day people pay-attention-to-needs-1will forget what you said. People will forget what you did.  But people will never forget how you made them feel.” (Angelou)

A lot is asked of us – day after day after day. Let’s make sure we don’t lose the most important pieces in the rush of all the other demands. Pay attention to students’ needs – for some, you may be the only one who does.

[1] Slavik, Steven, and Jon Carlson. Readings in the Theory of Individual Psychology. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.


[2] Lewis, Katherine Reynolds. “What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong.” Mother Jones July/Aug (2015): n. pag. Print.


The Seven Gateways: How to Teach the Whole Child

-by Krista Taylor

After any lesson that involved rich discussion, Alex would sidle up to me with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and say something like, “So if everything started with the Big Bang, what was there before that?”

Then he’d point at me and proudly say, “Can’t answer that one, can you, Ms. Taylor? Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Then, off he would go to his next class.

This is why I teach: to witness students come alive in the way Alex had – to be curious about the world and their role in it, and to be courageous enough to ask the big questions, knowing in advance that perhaps there are no real answers. To teach the whole child.

Teaching the whole child. We reference this frequently, but do we really know what it means? Do we all share the same definition? Do we know how to do it intentionally?

This concept of teaching more than academics, of developing students as well-rounded citizens is not new. As early as 1818, education was being defined as far broader than what fits neatly into the curricular content areas. In the 1818 Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson noted the importance of the role of education in the development of:

  • Morals
  • Understanding duties to one’s neighbors and country
  • A knowledge of rights
  • Intelligence and faithfulness in social relations

One hundred years later, in 1918, the National Education Association, indicated a similar function of schooling, as delineated in The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education

  • Health
  • Command of the fundamental processes
  • Worthy home membership
  • Vocation
  • Citizenship
  • Worthy use of leisure
  • Ethical character

In the mid to late 20th century, the “Open Education” movement put forward the need to include the following in classrooms:

  • Creativity
  • Invention
  • Cooperation and democratic participation in the classroom
  • Lifelong learning

And more recently, as the concept of “happiness” is being explored as something that includes specific, teachable components, it has been proposed that schools intentionally develop these qualities in students:

  • A rich intellectual life
  • Rewarding human relationships
  • Love of home and place
  • Sound character
  • Good parenting ability
  • Spirituality
  • The pursuit of a job that one loves [1]

Phew, that’s a lot to cover in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic!

And yet, it’s hard to argue with the importance of each of the items on each of those lists.

Teaching the whole child. We may not be able to clearly articulate it, or to agree on the exact same definition, but we certainly know its importance and we recognize it when we see it.

Alex loved sharing his big thoughts with me. I knew I had him hooked; I knew that he was engaging in his education far beyond the academic component. I knew that he was experiencing a rich, intellectual life, creativity, and a love of learning that would extend far beyond the classroom.

But how had I, and all of his teachers before me, helped him get to this place? What are the inroads to engaging students in this way? How do we teach “the whole child?”

Rachel Kessler investigates this concept in her inspiring and hope-filled book, The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Her use of the word “soul” is secular in nature, describing the teaching of the whole child to which so many of us ascribe. However, it can be challenging to integrate this into our classrooms alongside and in between the many, many requirements that currently exist in our educational system.

None of those additional whole child pieces were included in the No Child Left Behind Act, and while the Every Student Succeeds Act does touch on the importance of this, it fails to provide guidance on how to achieve it, stating little more than that schools should foster safe, healthy, supportive environments that support student academic achievement. [2]

Perhaps, in the current political-educational environment, failing to clearly define this type of instruction is for the best, as the elements of teaching the whole child both predate and supersede the current testing compulsion, and are entirely immeasurable.

In the Forward to Kessler’s book, Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and a world-renowned writer, speaker and activist, includes this reflection on the school accountability movement:

“We took teaching and learning – that ancient exchange between student and teacher and world in which human beings have always explored the depths of the soul – and started thinning it down into little more than the amassing of data and the mastering of technique… Kessler’s book does not ignore the standards movement, but responds creatively to the deeper yearning behind it: the desire to truly engage and equip today’s young people for effective learning. We must address what has heart and meaning for them if we want them to learn.”[3]

Through her work teaching adolescents, Kessler identified what she coined as image“Seven Gateways to the Soul.” Kessler arrived at this concept through compiling the reflections of her students over the course of many years and noting the categories they clustered into. Her gateways are, in essence, strategies for reaching the hearts and minds of adolescents –a kind of roadmap for how to teach the whole child. They are not linear, however – there is no particular order to them, they need to be traversed many times, they often overlap, and individual students will find varied levels of meaning in each of the different gateways.

  • The yearning for deep connection
  • The longing for silence and solitude
  • The search for meaning and purpose
  • The hunger for joy and delight
  • The creative drive
  • The urge for transcendence
  • The need for initiation [4]

Note the powerful verbs that Kessler uses – yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need. These gateways are not optional. Our students need us to provide the experiences for them. While it can be challenging to find ways to weave these components into the precious time we have with our class, there are infinite ways we can do so, and we must find a way.

This post serves merely as an overview of Kessler’s work. Each gateway will be explored individually and thoroughly in a future post. At Gamble, there are a variety of ways that we weave the seven gateways into our curriculum. Many of those are listed here; however they serve as nothing more than a beginning point. Replicating what we do is not necessary. Determining what is right for your students is. Engaging students through experiences aligned with Kessler’s seven gateways is teaching the whole child.

The yearning for deep connection

The Yearning for Deep Connection

“The yearning for deep connection describes a quality of relationship that is profoundly caring, is resonant with meaning, and involves feelings of belonging, or of being truly seen and known. Students may experience deep connection to themselves, to others, to nature, or to a higher power.”

  • A junior high community structure, where students remain with the same class of peers and teachers for most of the school day, helps to forge strong interpersonal bonds.
  • At high school, a similar experience is created through a 2-year looping cycle.
  • A bell schedule built to accommodate student-run meetings during the first fifteen minutes of each day
The longing for silence and solitude

 The Longing for Silence and Solitude

“The longing for silence and solitude, often an ambivalent domain, is fraught with both fear and urgent need. As a respite from the tyranny of ‘busyness’ and noise, silence may be a realm of reflection, of calm or fertile chaos, an avenue of stillness and rest for some, prayer and contemplation for others.”

  • Solo time, based on Maria Montessori’s development of “The Silent Game,” provides students with the experience of silence and solitude at least once each week
  • Mindfulness practices are demonstrating nearly unbelievable results in school districts that are implementing them with fidelity. At this point, at Gamble, we are merely dabbling in this work, but current research indicates that it is likely to be a growing trend.
The search for meaning and purpose

The Search for Meaning and Purpose

“The search for meaning and purpose concerns the exploration of big questions, such as ‘Why am I here?’ ‘Does my life have a purpose?’ ‘How do I find out what it is?’ ‘What is life for?’ ‘What is my destiny?’ ‘What does my future hold?’ and ‘Is there a God?’”

  • Montessori Secondary curriculum is based on what are called “cycles of study.” Cycles of study are a quarter or a semester in length, and they focus on a theme that explores big questions.
  • Montessori wrote about the importance of real-world experiences. At Gamble, students participate in field experiences and intersessions each year. Some of these, like the trip to Pigeon Key, serve to expose students to the wonder of the world around them. Others, like the college and career intersessions that take place during students’ junior and senior years, guide students toward future academic and career choices. Both help students to grapple with life’s deep questions.
The hunger for joy and delight

The Hunger for Joy and Delight

“The hunger for joy and delight can be satisfied through experiences of great simplicity, such as play, celebration, or gratitude. It also describes the exaltation students feel when encountering beauty, power, grace, brilliance, love, or the sheer joy of being alive.”

  • Group initiatives, or cooperative, team-building experiences, are part of the Montessori components we conduct regularly at Gamble.
  • And, of course, we experience joy and delight on our field experiences and intersessions.
The creative drive

 The Creative Drive

“The creative drive, perhaps the most familiar domain for nourishing the spirit in school, is part of all the gateways. Whether developing a new idea, a work of art, a scientific discovery, or an entirely new lens on life, students feel the awe and mystery of creating.”

  • Kessler notes that creativity is something that is commonly woven into curricula. Despite budget cuts that seem to imply the opposite, exposing adolescents to art, music, and drama is critical to their development.
  • Choice work is a component of both Montessori philosophy and current educational best practices. Giving students the option to create a poster, a 3-D model, write a play or a poem, or create illustrations to demonstrate understanding is a very common way to embed creativity into the classroom.
  • One of the graduation requirements at Gamble is a Senior Project. In this broad independent study, students have complete determination over the topic they choose to study.
The urge for transcendence

 The Urge for Transcendence

“The urge for transcendence describes the desire of young people to go beyond their perceived limits. It includes not only the mystical realm, but experiences of the extraordinary in the arts, athletics, academics, or human relations. By naming and honoring this universal human need, educators can help students constructively channel this powerful urge.”

  • At Gamble, like at most schools, students are provided with extracurricular opportunities. Auditioning for a play, trying out for a team, achieving a personal best or breaking a record are all ways that students can push past their perceived limits.
  • In the spring of students’ 7th grade year, we go on a multi-day leadership experience held at a local YMCA camp. This is a “challenge by choice” experience, and we ask students to push themselves beyond their comfort level.
The need for initiation

 The Need for Initiation

“The need for initiation deals with rites of passage for the young – guiding adolescents to become more conscious about the irrevocable transition from childhood to adulthood. Adults can give young people tools for dealing with all of life’s transitions and farewells. Meeting this need for initiation often involves ceremonies with parents and faculty that welcome them into the community of adults.”

  • The first experience students have with initiation at Gamble happens on the last night of fall camp.
  • Mirroring the fall camp initiation ceremony, there is a similar event on the last night in Pigeon Key, Florida.
  • Of course, graduation is the ultimate school-based rite of passage ceremony. At Gamble this is done in two stages
    • At Meet the Seniors night, each family gets to introduce their child to the Gamble community, and we get the opportunity to view each of these students from the perspective of their family. Each student is given time to be the most important person in the room.
    • Commencement is a monumental celebration in any school. The things that make Gamble’s graduations special are described here.

There are many, many ways to honor adolescents’ yearning, longing, search, hunger, drive, urge, and need for each of the gateways that Kessler has identified. This teaching of the whole child is at least as essential as any set of standards or curriculum requirements; as a society, we have been aware of that for several hundred years. There are infinite possibilities that will meet these needs; as educators we must seek them out and implement them.

Over the course of the next few months, we will more deeply explore each gateway – describing in full what we do at Gamble to address each, investigating ways other schools have done the same, and inviting you to share your work along these lines, as well as ideas for going deeper.

[1] Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, vol. 63, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 8–13.

[2] “Federal Policy.” Casel. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.

[3] Palmer, Parker. “Forward.” The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 2000, pp. v-vi.

[4] Kessler, Rachael. The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion, and Character at School. Alexandria, VA, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2000.

You Never Know Where You Will Find Angels

 – by Krista Taylor

We say that the best learning is experiential. We say that it’s critical to take students out of the classroom, so they can truly understand the implications of the work.

What if I told you that this was true for teachers as well?

Fall camp is always remarkable, and I have written about it previously.  Each year, this camping experience provides many stories about witnessing the best in our students, and somehow the themes of these stories are always the same – inclusivity, belonging, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, challenge, perseverance, and leadership. While these are things that are difficult to teach in the classroom, they are lessons that seem to occur spontaneously at camp.

I knew this already. I knew that camp inspires students to rise to challenges. I knew that camp provides teachers with the opportunity to witness strengths in students that don’t appear in the classroom. But, for the first time this year, camp opened my eyes to something new. This year, camp taught me about poverty.

Every year we have students who aren’t able to attend our camping trip because of an inability to pay for it. This year, Christ Church Cathedral  provided Gamble with a generous $2,500 grant to help cover the cost of camping for these students. This meant that, for the first time ever, our neediest students would be able to join us. You never know where you’ll find angels.

Ensuring that these students participated in this experience, however, was not a simple process. We first had to set parameters on how the money would be disbursed. It was immediately divided into four amounts of $625 in order to fund students in each of our four middle school communities. But then what? How do we decide who receives it? How much should each family be given? Should behavioral concerns be taken into consideration?

This is a harder conversation than it initially appears. My team sat down together and spent several hours hashing out the details of a plan that felt fair and compassionate. We knew that families should be obligated to contribute some of the money – both to honor their dignity and to ensure their buy-in to our program. We debated the merit of using the funding to support students who were likely to be behaviorally challenging at camp. Did they deserve to go as much as another student who also needed financial support, but was better at following expectations? How much should we give each family? How could we use the money to reach the greatest number of students? Here are the parameters that we ultimately agreed upon.

  • Behavioral issues would not exclude students from receiving funding – in many ways, it is these students for whom the experience is most important.
  • All families would be required to pay a minimum of $20 toward a student’s camp costs
  • We would send out a robocall to all families asking them to contact us if they needed financial assistance
  • We would then contact each of these families individually and begin the conversation by asking how much of the cost they could contribute

It was Jack, our principal, who helped us develop this final piece as a means of determining how much support each family should receive. He advised us to trust our families — to let them know that we were trying to help everyone who needed help, and to trust them to come through with as much of the money as they could. Having these conversations was remarkable. Some families who initially asked for assistance, ultimately were able to come up with the entire amount when we offered them a few days extension for payment. One family who had recently experienced homelessness, divorce, and mental health issues, has two students in our community, and thus, double the cost. They found a way to scrape together half of the money. Other families needed more.

During one of these phone calls, Justin’s mother confided that she didn’t think she was going to be able to make the payment this year. When I asked her how much she thought she could contribute. She quietly said, “Honestly, right now, I don’t have anything.” My heart hurt as I replied, “We’re asking all families to make a minimum contribution of twenty dollars. I paused, desperately seeking words that wouldn’t instill shame. “Can you do that much? If you can, we can cover the rest.” She broke down and tearfully said, “Yes. I think I can find a way to come up with twenty dollars. Thank you. Thank you so much.” “You’re welcome,” I practically whispered. I’m not even sure we actually said good-bye before hanging up. I cannot even imagine the humility that it must take to admit that you have so little that coming up with twenty dollars is a challenge, but I am grateful that she was able to honestly share her reality with me, so that I could help. And I am even more grateful that I had funding with which I could offer the help.

These conversations were uncomfortable and somehow, simultaneously, both uplifting and heart-breaking. We quickly realized that we didn’t have enough funding to cover every student’s need. Beau was casually discussing this challenge with his in-laws, Nancy and Kevin Robie, over dinner one evening. They surprised him by saying, “How much would you need to send them all?”

Honestly, we didn’t know; we hadn’t had financial discussions with all of our families yet. If they each needed the full amount, it would total just over a thousand dollars. When Beau hesitantly shared this information, they miraculously said, “Ok. We can do that.” You never know where you will find angels.

Being able to say yes to every request, and not having to pick and choose between families, was a tremendous gift. Ultimately, it turned out that we only needed an extra $327, and with the support of both the Christ Church Cathedral donation and this private one, twelve students were able to go to camp who wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. But there were two students who stood out as being the most profoundly impacted.

Unlike Justin, who has an involved parent and has always been able to pay for our field experiences in the past, Micah and Derek have never been able to participate in any of them. Both of these students have uninvolved parents, both clearly come from financially unstable households, both have cognitive disabilities, both exhibit disruptive behavior in the classroom, both struggle with academic content and focus, and both are somewhat ostracized by their peers.

When we considered how to best use our donations, these two students came to mind immediately. However, ensuring their attendance on the trip was no easy task. We sent home our permission form packet with each of them multiple times, and yet the day before the trip, neither of them had their forms turned in. We repeatedly called home trying to get everything in order, but hadn’t been able to reach anyone. Finally, the day before the trip, Micah’s mother came in to sign the paperwork, but she did not turn in the required twenty dollars.

On Tuesday morning, the day of the trip, Micah came into my classroom just before school started – all packed for camp; although with a blanket roll instead of a sleeping bag – and said dispiritedly, “Ms. Taylor, my mom didn’t pay.” I said, “I know, Micah, we have to call her again.” When we called, she told us that she had given the money to Micah, but he had lost it. Perhaps true; perhaps not. We reminded her that she had to pay the $20 in order for him to attend. Finally, less than an hour before we boarded the bus, she came to the school office to pay and noted that she had been at work when we called, and upon overhearing her end of the conversation, one of her customers handed her a ten dollar bill. You never know where you will find angels.

Micah tentatively asked, “So I can go now?” It was such a relief to be able to say, “Yes.”

Derek’s situation was similar. The day before the trip, he had no money and no forms turned in. That evening when we finally reached his mom, she indicated that she had no money to give us, but that we could call his father. We had been teaching Derek for a year, but had no idea that his father was in the picture. When we reached him, he indicated that he’d come to the school and pay the $20 the next morning. In addition, he’d go out that evening and purchase a sleeping bag and flashlight for Derek so that he could come to camp fully equipped. Early the next morning, Derek’s dad was in the office as promised. He paid the $20; the grant provided $119. You never know where you will find angels.

Derek arrived at school with a giant smile. “Ms. Taylor, I get to go! I’m going to camp!”

At camp, we had the opportunity to see these children contribute in a way that they aren’t able to demonstrate in the classroom. imageWhile Derek was canoeing the first day, a canoe flipped over and headed downriver without its boaters, only to wind up lodged in the bank quite a ways downstream. After a teacher spotted it and pulled the group over to try and retrieve it, Derek was the first to volunteer to hike down the bank with a parent chaperone to dump it and bring it back to the group. He did this without complaint and took tremendous pride in his ability to assist the group.

Micah canoed the second day, and we had another swamped canoe. This time it came to rest in a marshy area of the river. When Micah’s boat caught up to it, he immediately jumped out into waist-deep water and started helping to get it flipped over, emptied, and righted. This is no easy task – especially for someone who has never been canoeing before.

Both boys noted that one of their favorite parts of camp was being on cook crew. (Over the course of our four days together, every student participates in cooking a meal for the 55 people at camp.) This is no easy task, and initially I believed that they enjoyimg_1050ed it because it allowed them to contribute to the good of the group. This was certainly part of it. Both boys noted in their journals that they felt good about doing tasks like hauling water from the pump to the campsite, and cooking food such as sausage breakfast sandwiches and vegetable soup.

But it was more than that. At camp, students are not permitted to go anywhere without a buddy; this means that pairings happen frequently and fluently. Both boys struggle with social inclusion at school, but at camp they were overheard gleefully exclaiming, “Why does everybody want to be my buddy? People are all the time asking me if I’ll be their buddy!” Being on cook crew is a group task, and it requires everyone working together, often in pairs or trios. In order to be successful at the task, everyone has to contribute and everyone has to be included. Micah and Derek were wanted and needed by the group, and they felt great about that.

All of this warms my heart. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. It, of course, was not. Derek needed constant prompting to get his packet work completed, and Micah stayed up until 3:30 one night talking in his tent – apparently to himself.img_1064 But at camp, Micah and Derek were also able to shine. Their classmates had the opportunity to see their strengths. Their teachers had the opportunity to see their strengths. But, most importantly, they had the opportunity to see their own strengths. Helpfulness, perseverance, belonging . . . those are beautiful qualities to witness unfolding. You never know where you will find angels.

And yet, this still isn’t the end of my story. On our last day, I had separate, but similar, heart wrenching conversations with each of them. Mid-morning, Derek asked me if we were going to pack lunches again that day. I told him that we were, whereupon he asked me if we had to eat it there, or if he could take it home with him. He was disappointed when I told him that we had to eat at camp.

Later that day when I asked Micah what his favorite thing was about camp, he said, “Canoeing . . . and the food.” I asked him about the homemade vegetable soup that we had prepared the day before. He said he really liked it, and that he had never had vegetable soup before.   Then he said, “Ms. Taylor, are we gonna get to eat dinner here tonight?” When I told him no, he disappointedly said, “Awww, man!”

I smiled and laughed at his response, and then, in the next moment, caught my breath as I understood what he was saying to me. Every other student was over-joyed to get to go home and eat a non-camp meal, but Micah wanted to stay for dinner.  He wanted to have dinner at camp because meals at camp are predictable and nutritionally-balanced, and there is always more than enough.

I wanted to cry.

A few hours later, this feeling was compounded when Derek saw the remaining food that we were packing up to take back to school. He asked, “What are you going to do with that?” We told him that we would send it home with students. He said, “Really? All that bread? Can we take that cheese, too?”

Yes, Derek, you can take the cheese, too.

I already knew that these students had challenging home environments, but I don’t think I really understood what that meant until these experiences at camp. It was suddenly crystal clear that these children simply didn’t have enough to eat at home. They were experiencing food insecurity right before my eyes.

At camp, I had the privilege of being able to provide both Micah and Derek with four days’ worth of the security of regularly-scheduled, healthy meals. This was a benefit of our camping trip that I had never overtly witnessed before. This was the deep learning that was new for me this year, and this learning is equal parts gift and challenge. I know that for four days, these students ate heartily and nutritiously. I now know that this was a unique experience for them. I don’t know how to fix that. I, of course, already knew that poverty is a crisis that impacts many of my students, but never before had I seen or felt it in such a tangible way.

Four days is not enough. I also know that. But it is a beginning, and the provision of food creates a trust that may be more profound than any other. I’m not sure how to continue building on that trust, but I know that we have established a fragile foundation. You never know where you will find angels.

Hate PD? Try Voluntary Piloting.

-by Krista Taylor

Teacher professional development has a reputation for being notoriously poor.

voluntary piloting can't get enough

So often it is a top-down approach that is out of touch with the challenges of being in a classroom. But what if teachers took control of that and turned it on its head? What if teachers determined how they needed to grow and develop, and worked together to do so?

In 2013, during the after-graduation faculty celebration, my colleague, Josh, and I began discussing some of the concerns we had about our instruction. As the party wound down, and we began making our way to our cars to go home, we came to a powerful realization. Both of us had prioritized developing differentiation practices in our classrooms. Both of us were struggling with it. Both of us were frustrated with our perceived lack of progress. This discussion caused us to quite literally stop in our tracks. We spent the next hour standing on a street corner problem-solving how we could make the work easier and find greater success.

At Gamble, one of our long-time frustrations as a building has been how to support students to rise to the rigors of college preparatory, honors-level academics in an urban, public school where 70% of our students are eligible for the federal free lunch program. Like many urban, public schools, our students often come to us with below-grade level skills, poorly developed work habits, and a lack of academic buy-in. All too often, this combination of high expectations and low skills results in students with failing grades. How do we maintain high academic rigor for all students while also meeting students (especially our most-challenged ones) where they are? Is this not the crux of the conflict in most classrooms?

Although I teach 7th and 8th graders and Josh teaches 11th and 12th graders, we realized that we had both been working independently on finding solutions to this same struggle, and we extrapolated that there were likely others invested in the same work in other areas of our building.

We envisioned becoming a Montessori Secondary School where all learners are welcomed in classrooms, and where differentiation is so much a part of our instruction that it is no longer note-worthy to students. And classrooms where teachers are comfortable with meeting learners where they are and developing their skills, regardless of where that left them in proximity to standardized-test passage.

We had been unable to find a way to do this individually, but we thought we might be able to do it better with the support of each other and any other colleagues who might be interested in joining us.   We approached Jack (our principal) with the idea of launching a voluntary differentiation pilot program in our building, and, after hashing out some of the details, we were given permission to broach this topic with our faculty and to elicit support from the staff of CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program).

We began by issuing this open invitation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 6.12.45 PM
To enlarge, click image

Additionally, we personally invited those who we felt would be most receptive. For example, Josh directly approached the intervention specialist on his team with whom he regularly collaborated, and I requested that both members of my newly-formed team join me in working on this.

Some people asked if they could earn CEUs (Continuing Education Units) for their participation. We took this request back to Jack who readily agreed to arrange this. A few other details were hashed out – how we would re-initiate the conversation in the fall, when we would schedule the first meeting, and what that agenda would look like.

Thus, from what started as a casual, street-corner discussion, a pilot project was born.

So, that’s it, right? Open the door to collaboration, the masses will come running, definitive answers will be found, and all will be well with the world. Well, no, not exactly.

Our group of volunteers met at the start of the year to establish what we wanted to accomplish together. Originally there were ten of us, but after this first meeting, we were reduced to just seven through self-selection. Initially this small number of participants felt very disappointing – where were the hoards of teachers flocking together to improve their practice? That was definitely what I had envisioned. However, in hindsight, I am convinced that our small size was one of the most critical components of our success. Joining our pilot was purely voluntary, and this ensured that only people willing to commit to doing this work in a positive and forward-thinking way joined our group. Those who didn’t share our vision opted out. This meant that while we didn’t have the numbers that I had anticipated, we also didn’t have the uncommitted, disengaged participants that I had worried about.

There is a large body of evidence suggesting that the way to shift institutional practices is to begin with the people with whom you have immediate buy-in. From their success, you will sway most others. This premise is known as the Diffusion Innovation Model and was initially purported by Everett Rogers in 1962. A large body of research supports Rogers’ theory that the spreading of new products or ideas is based on four factors: the innovation itself, human capital, time, and communication. After initiation by the “innovators,” the concept readily spreads to “early adopters” who ultimately influence the “early majority.” It is not necessary to address resistors, or the “late majority and laggards”, until there is a ground-swell of people on board who can carry them along.

voluntary piloting DOI
Left to Right: Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards

Because our group was made up of volunteers who chose to work together in this way (our innovators and early adopters), we were free to develop into whatever it was that we believed would work for us. Although we were all teachers in the same building, we didn’t all work closely with one another on a regular basis. Our group represented a variety of grade levels and departments in our building – 7th and 8th grade, 11th and 12th grade, social studies, language arts, math, science, special education, and music. As a result, it was important that we developed clear expectations of our work together. The parameters that we established at our initial meeting were:

  • we would meet once a month
  • we would honor each other’s time by keeping meetings as close to an hour in length as possible
  • we would value our time together by committing to attend meetings
  • our focus would be on classroom differentiation as a means of growing all learners
  • we would conduct focused, non-evaluative observations of each other to improve our practice – we called these “Friendly Feedback Observations.”

In the beginning, we shared our successes and our challenges. We quickly discovered that we were already doing a lot. Just stating differentiation as an intention at our initial meeting in September had motivated each of us to work toward furthering our practice in this area. Some of our reported successes were small in-roads: providing read-aloud options on a more consistent basis, using a wider variety of instructional groupings, or allowing students with prior piano experience to branch out into guitar exploration during music class. And some of our successes were quite significant: providing weekly checklists/work plans that were uniquely targeted to students’ needs, or individualizing assessments such that each student received different questions on a physics test. But we had our share of noteworthy challenges too, and we still had a long way to go to develop what we wanted to see in our classrooms.

We noted that our challenges clustered into four areas: differentiation of assessments, differentiation of assignments, differentiation of instruction, and differentiation of expectations. By looking at it this way, we quickly realized that we were putting the cart before the horse by starting with the products (the assessments and assignments) rather than the students (the expectations).

Through our conversations, we also recognized that we were all struggling with feeling comfortable with meeting students where they were and moving them forward along a continuum, even if they didn’t ultimately reach the grade-level outcome. For all our nose-thumbing, anti-testing bravado, we felt pretty nervous about championing the idea that not all students learn the same thing at the same time and reach the same place, and somewhat blindly trusting that this wouldn’t have terrible repercussions on our standardized test scores.

It was critical to have each other to bounce ideas off of and to ensure that we were maintaining appropriate expectations coupled with appropriate supports for all of our students. Together we were able to do what none of us had been able to satisfactorily do alone. We noted gains – even incremental ones – we dug deep into what best practice could look like, and collectively, we had more courage to take risks.

And while each month, we celebrated our successes; we also took a hard look at our challenges. Halfway through that first year, we remained dissatisfied by the number of students earning failing grades. How could this be? We had worked so hard! How could all of our efforts still have not been enough to support students? Josh and Matt had further developed their co-teaching model providing additional interventions to struggling learners. Beau was regularly differentiating assignments into three levels to support all students in accessing the general education curriculum. Kim was creating five different student checklists every week in order to allow for individually targeted assignments. Steve had spent hours developing a differentiated science unit. How were our students still falling short of our expectations? What were appropriate expectations? How would we know when we reached them?

Fortunately, Barb Scholtz, CMStep Practicum Director, was supporting and challenging us in our reflective practice. When this concern came up, she simply looked at us, and with this simple question, re-committed us to our mission. She asked, “Well, are they learning?” When we answered with a confident, “Yes,” her response was, “Then, how can they be failing?”

It sounds simple, right? If they are learning, if they are progressing, then that’s all we can ask of them, right? But what about standards-based grading? What about content mastery? What about pre-requisite skills?

Nothing in education is simple. We know about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development which notes that learning occurs just beyond the level of what students can do independently.

voluntary piloting zpd

We know about isolating the difficulty, or focusing on a new skill without adding in additional complexities.

And, perhaps, most importantly, we know our students. We know, as professionals, and as people who interact with them every day, what we can expect from them and how far we can push them. So, yes, if they are learning, they can’t possibly be failing. But too many of them were. What were we doing wrong?

So, back to the drawing board we went to try to find answers to our many complex questions. How can we inspire students to show what they know? How do we instill a work ethic in our students? What about the wooly beast of homework? How are our students’ developmental needs and socio-economic status related to each of these issues?

We turned to research to guide us. We looked at best practices in grading policies, strategies to improve rates of homework completion, and use of student self-evaluation tools.

We also invited one another into our classrooms for what we deemed “Friendly Feedback Observations.” We asked each other, as trusted professionals, to observe specific concerns in our practice and to provide both critical and supportive feedback. This not only elicited targeted suggestions for improvement, it also allowed us to see what we were each doing really well, and what techniques we could borrow to improve our own instruction.

We adjusted and enhanced our teaching practices again and again. Each of us did that a little differently. Each of us discovered inroads. None of us got it exactly right. But all of us made progress.

What I know for sure is that because of the commitment I made by joining this group, I pushed myself harder. When we began, differentiation was something that happened sometimes in my classroom, and, as a result, it was something that was somewhat uncomfortable for my students. Today, the vast majority of assignments are differentiated, and students expect this and discuss it openly. Those conversations sound like this:

“Is this assignment differentiated?”

“Do I have the right level?”

“Can I try Developing, and if it’s too hard can I move down to Discovering?”

“Do you think I should do Adventuring today?”

“I’d like you to try the Enrichment level. I think it will be more interesting to you as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.”

Differentiation is fluid, frequent, and has become the norm for my students. There is no stigma of cleverly-titled tracking groups like “Bluebirds” and “Robins.” Rather, each day, each student works at his or her instructional level for that particular concept in that particular moment.

This shift took three years, and it wasn’t just my classroom that was profoundly impacted by the work of our pilot group. Each of the participants experienced significant changes in practice, and throughout the course of the past three years, we have continued to review the research, implement shifts, examine our own data, and repeat this cycle again and again.

Have we found all the answers? No, not yet. Probably, not ever. But that’s not really the point. Our work with differentiation has grown so much. Those of us in that original pilot group have achieved our original vision of classrooms where differentiation has become a norm. We now, of course, have bigger hopes and dreams for ourselves. Meanwhile, other members of our faculty have followed our lead, and differentiation strategies are being implemented at different levels throughout our building.

But more importantly, through our research and discussions, we are challenging each other, and through our implementation of things we’ve discussed, we are improving our practice. And, more than that, we are supporting each other and helping each other hold fast to the dream of inspiring our students and guiding them to develop into well-rounded and educated adults. Isn’t that why each of us entered this field in the first place? And, in this intense time in education, it is so easy to lose that focus. But, through collaboration with each other, we can hang on to this lofty ideal.

You can begin building this spirit of professional collaboration and growth in your building, too. Our group was dedicated to increasing differentiation practices, but any professional issue could serve as a focus for a similar discussion forum.

Here are what we’ve found to be the necessary components to making a program like this effective:

  • Grab the bull by the horns: whatever is the greatest challenge or frustration in your building or classroom, tackle that. Go ahead and look it in the eyes, and begin seeking solutions.
  • Begin by making it voluntary; there is no room for naysayers. Keep in mind that some people may need a personal invitation, but no begging. The people who decline your invitation are not ready to be part of the first-wave of your pilot.
  • Develop your objectives and procedures together. Focus on what you want from each other. What are your shared goals? How can you best support each other in achieving them? What limits and boundaries do people need to have respected? Along these same lines, any changes need to be approved by the group before being acted upon.
  • Hold structured meetings as a way to honor everyone’s time and energy. Avoid allowing this group to become a de facto lunch break or happy hour. Value the work to be done.
  • Resist the temptation to spend time complaining – while your group may not have a designated leader, you do need a facilitator who will lead the group toward the generation of solutions, and away from the slippery slope of negativity.
  • Brainstorm together – there’s no reason why people should be working on the same things in isolation. Do it together, and you’ll be more successful and more energized.
  • But don’t just brainstorm. Implement. Even if that means taking one baby step at a time. And, pick each other up when you fall. Because sometimes the ideas that sounded so great in theory, weren’t so great in reality. It’s easy to get discouraged, so be cheerleaders for each other.
  • Hold each other accountable for implementation. But remember, the goal is progress, not perfection. We used our Friendly Feedback Observations for this, but there are other ways.
  • Keep going. As you move forward, others will witness your success, and your influence will spread.

We have all been in those mandatory professional development workshops about which there are so many sarcastic memes.

voluntary piloting life and death

We’ve all rolled our eyes as yet another flash-in-the-pan initiative is rolled out with great pomp and circumstance.

voluntary piloting flash

We’ve all sat through umpteen meetings where concerning data is shared along with a plethora of quick-fix solutions, few of which seem realistic to implement in our classrooms.

voluntary pilot Oprah3

While these types of trainings are likely to continue, you need not allow them to dictate your professional growth. Think about what you want to work on in your classroom. Seek out like-minded educators in your building, and set aside time to work on this together. Dig deep. Find strategies that are feasible. Try them out. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. And repeat this process.

This work leads to powerful, uplifting, and beneficial professional growth. All you have to do is decide what you want to work on, find others who want to work on that, too, and get started.

CMStep — Transformation of the Teacher

-by Krista Taylor

“The real preparation for education is the study of one’s self. The training of the teacher is something far more than the learning of ideas. It includes the training of character; it is a preparation of the spirit.”  –Maria Montessori, Absorbent Mind 

During each of the past three summers, I have spent several weeks working as an assistant teacher for CMStep (Cincinnati Montessori Secondary Teacher Education Program — a Secondary Montessori teacher training program.) My friends wonder why on Earth I would want to spend precious weeks of summer in this way. It’s a fair question. CMStep classes run from eight in the morning until six in the evening, and I usually bring several hours of work home with me each night as well. It requires intense effort, not much like summer at all.

But being involved with CMStep restores, reinvigorates, and re-inspires me like nothing else because I get to witness “the transformation of the teacher” — or what Montessori called, “preparation of the spirit” — on an incredibly personal and powerful level. It is a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to watch this process unfold for the adult learners in the course. It is really quite magical.image

This summer, when I came home from my first day of helping with the Curriculum Development course, my husband, Blake, greeted me as he always does, “How was your day?”

My day had been fine, but I was deeply concerned about how I was going to support one of the students in my guide group (Each adult learner is provided with a CMStep “guide” or teacher, who provides individualized support. Some guides are, like me, assistant instructors who are in turn “guided” and supervised by full instructors.)

Elizabeth was in an incredibly challenging situation. She was hired to teach math and science at a private Montessori school that is in the first year of building an adolescent program, but she had just found out that due to enrollment issues, she would have to teach language arts and social studies as well. Since her program hadn’t had a middle school before, there weren’t any identified standards or curricula, nor did she really have any materials or pacing guidelines. And on top of that, she had just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. She had no teacher training, no student teaching, no education coursework, and she was charged with essentially developing an entire adolescent program alone. And, oh, yeah, her school started in two weeks.

Blake is also a teacher (although not a Montessorian), so we regularly “talk shop.” On this day though, he had little to offer me. “Wow. That’s hard. I can’t even imagine. It’s a good thing she’s taking this class.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I replied, but I wasn’t convinced. I was remembering Elizabeth’s big eyes and the anxiety I heard in her voice as she talked about trying to tackle all that was in front of her. Quite honestly, I didn’t know how she was going to do it either.

It is not easy to become a credentialed Secondary I (grades 7-8) and Secondary II (grades 9-12) Montessori teacher. There are currently only two AMS (American Montessori Society) programs that offer these credentials – CMStep, and Houston Montessori Center. As a result, teachers come from all over to participate in this program.  While most come from various parts of the United States, we have had adult learners from Puerto Rico, Canada, and even Slovenia. It is a teacher training institution that is growing by leaps and bounds.

Marta Donahoe is the visionary behind CMStep and also the founder of Clark Montessori High School (the first public secondary Montessori school in the nation). She developed CMStep initially to serve as a training center for Clark teachers. The first CMStep cohort of teachers began coursework during the summer of 2004 with just eight full-time participants. This summer, cohort 12 had forty-two enrolled adult learners.

The CMStep credentialing process is spread out over three years. It includes two summers of coursework and a practicum phase that generally begins after the first summer. The practicum phase includes three classroom observations by CMStep staff, two long-weekend workshops called “intensives,” and a year-long research project.

I learned the hard way that these classes should not be confused with typical professional development. My first set of classes started a mere two days after my hire date at Gamble, and Jack asked me if I could make myself available to take the training. I wanted to make a good impression, and I figured a couple weeks spent at a hotel or convention center watching speakers with PowerPoints while being provided with coffee, doughnuts, and boxed lunches, couldn’t be too painful. So I quickly arranged childcare and signed up for the course.

My first clue that I was entering into something different was discovering upon enrollment that there was required pre-reading — two books and a stack of articles.image I had only two days to prepare; fortunately, I had already read one of the books. While the pre-reading was the first surprise, it was definitely not the last. CMStep is a far cry from traditional PD. It is, in fact, graduate level coursework compressed into one- and two-week timeframes. Not only was there pre-reading, there was also homework – lots of homework – and not a lecturer or PowerPoint in sight. And forget the doughnuts and boxed lunches – this was a different kind of training. CMStep work involves a tremendous amount of reading, deep self-reflection, academic planning, and community building.

Each course focuses on a different aspect of the expectations of a Secondary Montessori teacher. The classes are listed in order and briefly outlined here – see the CMStep website for more information

First Summer Courses

  • Montessori Philosophy — taught by Marta Donahoe and Katie Keller Wood, CMStep’s current co-directors, this course is a heavy reading course which submerses participants in the richness and depth of Montessori pedagogy and the needs of the adolescent.
  • Introduction to Curriculum – focuses on the 6-9 (grades 1-3) and 9-12 (grades 4-6) Montessori classrooms and materials, as these are the building blocks to an adolescent program
  • Erdkinder – Maria Montessori spoke of adolescents as Erdkinder (Earth’s Children), and she believed that they are best served through hands-on work in the natural world. The Erdkinder course is a 5 day overnight experience that models this type of experience. Participants delve deep into the concepts of stewardship and community building.
  • Curriculum Development – This is the first of the three “product-heavy” courses. In this two-week class, participants must craft the major components for a Montessori “cycle of study” – most commonly understood as a quarter’s worth of instructional content which is tied together by an over-arching theme.

Second Summer Courses

  • Pedagogy of Place – The first of the second summer courses focuses on the importance of well-constructed real-world experiences in the Montessori classroom. Adult learners participate in a neighborhood study (or “urban Erdkinder”) while simultaneously designing all parts of a comprehensive field study experience for their own students.
  • Structure and Organization – This final course asks participants to examine their “problems of practice,” and to develop 12 products, structures, or organizational systems that are rooted in Montessori philosophy, to help address these problems.

Two on-line courses, Montessori Overview and Mindfulness Fundamentals, are also required for credentialing.

Although I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I began my CMStep journey, I never once looked back, or found myself pining for the days of doughnuts, boxed lunches, and Powerpoints. This professional development was unbelievably challenging and fatiguing, but it was so much more powerful and so much more immediately useable than typical teacher trainings.image

I can quite honestly say that the CMStep program is the best educational coursework I have ever experienced, including both my undergraduate and graduate classes. It is powerful on a number of levels: the instructed content is of excellent quality, each course models the best practices of an adolescent classroom, the required work is based on real-classroom needs as determined by the individual adult learner, and the intensity of the work coupled with an intentional crafting of community results in the development of a profound connection among learners. All of this taken together is what leads toward transformation of the teacher. This is where the magic lies.

But magic doesn’t happen all at once. I met one-on-one with Elizabeth nearly daily during our two weeks together. She told me the same things each day: she was overwhelmed by the work — without an education background, she didn’t have any schema for how to tackle the tasks — and she had so much to do to get her classroom and curriculum ready that she was considering leaving the CMStep program and heading home. I tried to encourage her and give her the information she needed without overwhelming her further, but every evening after dismissal I worried about her. Despite her anxiety and my concerns, each morning, I would wake up to an inbox full of beautifully crafted work from her. When I commented on this, she simply said, “Yes, but I’m doing the easiest pieces first.”

One day, she sat down next to me and said, “I have to do the Lesson Plan assignments, and I don’t know what a lesson plan looks like; I’ve never seen one before.” We talked about requirements and formatting options. I wasn’t sure I had been clear enough, but the next morning I had an email titled, “My Very First Lesson Plan,” and it was lovely. We continued this way until just two days before the end of the course. Elizabeth’s demeanor was unchanged despite the incredible progress she had made in a week and a half. All she had left to complete was the project assignment and two weeks of student checklists. Admittedly, these are both huge tasks.

I knew why she found these pieces so intimidating. They were the parts she most desperately needed. Every time we spoke, she discussed her powerful need to know exactly what she would be doing with her students. These final components would make at least some of this concrete, and that is what would help her the most. Because of this, not knowing how to begin was extremely intimidating. She was just 48 hours from completing the first summer’s coursework, and she was still feeling so overwhelmed that quitting seemed like a viable option.

That night she sent me her completed project assignment – beautiful, as always. The next morning, I held my breath as I opened her checklist email. As I scrolled through page after page of student checklists that included well-constructed assignments differentiated by choice and by level for all four subject areas for two full weeks, my eyes filled with tears. She had done it! Not only had she finished all the required tasks for her CMStep coursework, she had given herself what she needed most – a clear step-by-step plan of what she was going to teach in her classroom during the first two weeks of school, and a structure that she could use to plan for the remainder of the year.

When she arrived at class that day, she looked like an entirely different person. Her eyes sparkled, and, for the first time, she was smiling. She had proven to herself that she could indeed do this, and she was nothing short of transformed. I should have known better than to worry so much. This happens every summer – we just have to remember to “Trust the Process,” it is designed to elicit transformation.

Elizabeth’s situation was notably unique; most of our adult learners are not facing so many challenges all at once, but the work is intense for each of them. This intensity is an important part of the transformation. I tell them that, as their guide, my job is to push them past their perceived limits. Certainly, this yields better work, but, beyond that, it shows them what they are capable of. Walking the line between supporting them in extending themselves and pushing them too far can be challenging.

As adults, we are not used to receiving critical feedback, and we are certainly rarely asked to re-do tasks. Both of these things are prevalent in CMStep, and this is a humbling experience.image I try to remember my own sensitivity about this when I was the adult learner, rather than the guide. (I, too, had to redo many assignments, and I, too, bristled in response.) Every summer, I learn a great deal from Barb Scholtz, one of my mentor teachers and CMStep’s Practicum Director. She reminds me to make gentle suggestions couched in phrases like, “Consider…” or “You may wish to . . .”  This careful feedback invites and counsels rather than demands, and it helps CMStep students push themselves to generate exemplary work.

Lee, a teacher at an established Montessori school in British Columbia, Canada is a phenomenal example of what happens in the pressure cooker of high expectations and gentle pushing. Like most, he struggled in the initial days with being asked to revise and redo his work, but by the second week, he had found his groove, and his work was phenomenal. Here is part of his reflection at the end of course: “At first, it was fairly evident that I felt overwhelmed. But then I quickly realized that my guide was truly there to help and support me, which lifted my spirits. Once I began to submit component work and receive feedback, I felt better and better with each passing day. The feedback was kind, illuminating, and constructive, but worded in a way that filled me with a sense of ease. This in turn increased my motivation to produce quality work, and to make the adaptations and edits.” THIS is CMStep – incredibly high expectations and workload coupled with nurturing support. And Lee’s process is what always happens with each adult learner. This is the transformative magic.

And what’s happening alongside, and in the background, of all of this work, is the cohesion of a group of Montessori teachers from around the country, and even the world, who are experiencing all of this together, and transforming together, and supporting each other together, and developing an incredibly powerful community together. When they leave CMStep and return to their school buildings, they will do these same things in their classrooms of adolescents.

Brandt Smith, another one of my mentors and a long-time CMStep instructor, said it best, “They may not remember ANY of the details, but do you know what every one of them knows? They know the taste of Community. Like a perfectly ripe peach or their first taste of ice cream, they KNOW the taste of Community! imageAnd from now on, everywhere they go, they’ll recognize the taste when it crops up. They’ll catch little whiffs of it, and they’ll follow their noses to try and find it! They may not recognize its absence, at least not right away. But when they start to interact with a group of people who support each other and care about each other – they’ll KNOW on a deep, personal level – they’ll recognize that taste and they choose to be a part of it because they know it’s a part of who they are. And they’ll rediscover their own gifts as they grow and contribute to that Community! THAT’S what they leave here with! And the World will be a better place because of that!”

And that’s the other part of the magic. The building of community that is created in CMStep is taken back to classrooms and to schools. This magic spreads from teachers to students, and slowly and over time, perhaps we can begin to change the world – one teacher, one classroom, one community at a time.



Gamble’s Mentoring Program: Teacher to Teacher

-by Krista Taylor

On the first day of school in a new building, I got called into the principal’s office.

I was mortified. This had never happened to me before in all of my years in the classroom – not as a student, and certainly not as a teacher. But on the first day of school in my first year of teaching at Gamble, Jack stopped into my classroom and said, “Ms. Taylor, can you please come see me before you leave today?” Whoa boy, nothing like getting the blood pumping just a little bit faster on an already anxiety-ridden first-day! With trepidation I went down to the office after dismissal. Jack’s first words to me were, “You came from a top-down school, didn’t you?”

“Ummmm . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You came from a school where administration did the disciplining, right?”


“Well, Gamble is a team-based school. You sent Denice down to the office today, but generally that kind of situation would be handled by the team.”

I left his office not much clearer than I had been when I entered. I now knew I shouldn’t have sent Denice there; however, I remained clueless about what I should have done when a student wasn’t following directions, walked out of the classroom, and refused to return when told to do so repeatedly. And I was also left wondering what exactly a “team-based school” was.

I seemed to keep embarrassing myself like this. For weeks, I didn’t know that I could enter the building directly from the back parking lot rather than walking all the way around. The first morning after someone kindly informed me of this, I found myself looking at the many unmarked doors at the back of the building trying to determine which was the one I needed. One of them was propped slightly open – surely that must be it. I confidently proceeded, and that was how I inadvertently walked directly into the boys’ locker room. Thankfully, no one was in there at that time. I rapidly retraced my steps praying that no one would see me.

About a month into the school year, the secretary stopped me and said, “You haven’t been signing in. You’re supposed to sign in every day.” Oops. Once again, no one had told me.

These were simple things that a building tour and a daily procedures explanation would have covered, but it was no one’s job to do this for me, and I simply didn’t think to ask.

So how do we help people who are new to our building acclimate to both the simple things – we have to sign in every day – and the more complicated ones – here’s how we handle discipline in our building? Not to mention the basics like which door to use!

My blunders led me to strongly advocate for a Teacher Mentoring program at Gamble. It wasn’t that the staff at Gamble wasn’t helpful – they were happy to answer any questions I had. It was just that I didn’t know what questions I needed to be asking, and there was no one explicitly tasked with showing me the ropes.

I wanted to create a mentoring process that would do three things.

  • provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building
  • assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations
  • include a deep sharing of the school culture.

Essentially, our mentoring program would cover all the layers of What We Do Here.  It would also provide a consistent person that a new employee could comfortably turn to who could patiently provide answers and guidance as often as necessary.

It took me awhile to convince Jack of the importance of creating something like this, and once I did, his first question was, “Well, how do we do that?”

“Ummmmm . . . I’m not really sure. New staff need to understand the basics, as well as all the things that happen during the year, but it also has to be more than that; they have to know who Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 3.42.50 PMwe are – at our heart.”

Neither one of us was entirely certain how to put all that together into a workable structure.

Fortuitously, that summer, Jack was on jury duty, and one of his fellow jurors happened to be Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s (a local pizza chain). Jack managed to get us a meeting with him to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. We educate children. What could we possibly learn from them?

As it turns out, we learned a tremendous amount. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about.

A number of statements stood out to me during that meeting.

  • The employer has a responsibility to grow team members
  • You need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish
  • The best teachers are your peers
  • In order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller

Their program included all three of the layers we had identified as important for teaching “What We Do Here.”

An overview of expectations and procedures is covered in their pre-orientation requirements – essentially a reading of the staff manual. LaRosa's101bFollowing the pre-orientation, instructions for how to handle a variety of situations are given during an in-person orientation session. But the most important thing that Mr. Cundiff shared with us was the importance they placed on sharing the Buddy LaRosa story, with every employee and every customer. This is the story that every new employee hears.

“As people traveled to Buddy’s original pizzeria to satisfy their hunger, sharing pizza, smiles and stories together he quickly saw that the more his guests smiled, the more often they came back. As his business grew, Buddy began to realize that the making smiles part was the most important work he did – LaRosa’s reason to exist. Reach Out and Make Smiles was born soon after as Buddy’s Service Philosophy.”

This philosophy is summarized and displayed on pizza paddles in every restaurant. It goes beyond pizza; it explains who they are, at their heart.Mentoring LaRosas

During the summer before the 2014-2015 school year, using what we had gleaned from LaRosa’s, and, adding some additional pieces to support the complexity of a teacher’s job, we set out to craft our Teacher to Teacher Mentoring Program at Gamble.

The most important component of our model is that teachers new to Gamble are paired with carefully-selected veteran teachers. This one-to-one pairing allows for a high-level of consistent support provided by a reliable and knowledgeable peer.

We put together a booklet (linked here) to serve as our overview of the basics. Most importantly, it includes a checklist of important things for mentors to cover with mentees before school even starts –among other things it includes:

  • A building tour
  • Where to sign in
  • How to use the copier
  • Where to find various supplies and materials
  • How the discipline policy works
  • An overview of emergency procedures

We also schedule periodic meetings throughout the year which cover a variety of topics such as:

  • An overview of Montessori philosophy
  • The requirements of our teacher evaluation system
  • Testing protocols
  • Professional development requirements
  • Monthly 1:1 check-ins to problem-solve concerns and provide encouragement and support

But all of these pieces – the before the school year overview, the monthly meetings, and the 1:1 check-ins – are all about the nitty-gritty of the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that arise so frequently in a school building.

None of them touch on the bigger piece – the piece that explains who we really are as an institution, what the culture of our program is. What is our pizza paddle, our fundamental values, our whole point? How do we share our heart and soul with new staff?

LaRosa’s had taught us the importance of telling our story, but what was our story? We quickly realized that we didn’t have just one story, we had many. A re-telling of the stories that exemplified us at our best would convey our fundamental values – our heart and soul. Instead of a pizza paddle what we had discovered was our Montessori Great Lesson.

 The Gamble Great Lesson is a re-telling of the stories where we live into our values. As such, although every part is true, it holds a somewhat mythical status, and it serves as a foundation for our Mentoring program by defining the deepest parts of What We Do Here. It is the kind of thing that Marta Donahoe, founder of CMStep, and a mentor to both Jack and me, would say needs to be experienced again and again, so “they feel it in their bones.”

In light of this, we hold 2 Mentoring meetings before the school year even begins. One for mentors only, to define the role and describe expectations of the program, and one for both mentors and mentees, which serves as a get-to-know-you gathering. Jack tells our story, The Gamble Great Lesson, at both of these events.

And in what always simultaneously seems as short as the blink of an eye and as long as an epoch, we will be wrapping up our year of mentoring, and celebrating the end of the school year together. In my mind, each year is a success as long as no one got called into the principal’s office on the first day of school, or inexplicitly found themselves in a locker room! However, I hope that our mentoring program provides so much more. I hope that it provides our new teachers with an easier transition. I hope that it serves to powerfully share the remarkable place that our school is. But mostly, I hope it provides a friendly face and a safe forum in which to ask questions, share concerns, seek solutions, and feel assured that they are not alone. After all . . . it’s what we do here.





Seeking Inspiration? — Read this Book!

-by Krista Taylor

If someone had told me that I would discover my favorite book of all time at a school sponsored professional development training, I would have laughed out loud. No way. Simply not possible. But it’s true, I did. During the summer of 2011, among the three books assigned as pre-reading for the Ascend Leadership Institute was The Art of Possibility, written by Rosamund and Benjamin Zander. The text on the back of the book says, “In the face of difficulty, we can despair, get angry . . . or choose possibility,” and from the very first pages I was hooked.  Jack was also deeply impacted by this book – it served as the impetus for the Giving an A teacher evaluation process that he implemented shortly after reading it, and when discussing who would get to write this post, we had a bit of a scuffle. I won.

The Art of Possibility is a life-changing work. I have recommended it to others more often than any other book I’ve ever read, and rather than loan mimgresine out, I purchase new books for those who want to read it. I love my copy so much that I consider it a kind of talisman . . . or perhaps a blankie. It is underlined and annotated, and has been so well-loved that the pages are beginning to separate from the binding.

So what is this book actually about?! It’s about life. And leadership. And perspective. And hope. I would like to say that reading this book opened my eyes and elicited such great changes in me that I am now . . . well . . . that I am now perfect. Unfortunately, that would not be a true story. Instead let me say that reading this book opened my eyes, and now, sometimes, I can see with a different perspective. Other times, I forget entirely, and for every two steps forward I take, it seems that I take one step (or sometimes even two) backward. Just as I say about my students, progress does not happen in a straight line, and surely mine has not. This book, however, has served as a catalyst for change, and it continues to provide grounding and reminders when I feel that I have lost my way.

The content of this book seems impossible to summarize, so rather than trying to do so, I want to share the ideas I have found most impactful. I know that these sections have such resonance with me because they are the areas with which I struggle the most. While it is tempting to tell you stories of how I courageously implemented these practices and mindsets, the truth is I don’t have many of those stories – I ask that you view those that I share here as the exception for me, rather than the rule. I continue to be a work in progress.

The Myth of Scarcity

In the first chapter, Zander and Zander discuss the myth of scarcity. The idea that when we believe that there is not enough of an important thing, it leads to competition, judgment, mistrust, and fear, but that ultimately, this way of understanding the world is false. Here is how they describe living with a scarcity focus. “On our path to achieving a goal, we inevitably encounter obstacles. Some of the more familiar ones, aside from other people, are scarcities of time, money, power, love, resources, and inner strength. . . . The assumption is that life is about staying alive and making it through – surviving in a world of scarcity and peril.” They write that a better model is found in seeing the world as “A Universe of Possibility.”   “Let us suppose, now, that a universe of possibility stretches beyond the world of measurement. (p.19) In this reality, the relationship between people and environments is highlighted, not the people and things themselves. Emotions that are often relegated to the special category of spirituality are abundant here: joy, grace, awe, wholeness, passion, and compassion.” (p. 20)

We no longer live in a world in which “survival of the fittest” makes sense. While neuroscience has taught us that the human brain remains wired to scan our environment for threats in order to trigger the “fight or flight” response when necessary, we no longer have to live this way in order to survive. Instead of seeking out the threats, or problems, what if we embraced possibility? The Zanders note that living “in abundance” brings greater abundance — that when you give up competition and scarcity thinking, greater connections and resources follow. We don’t have to succumb to the temptation of constant comparison, or that what you have takes from me. The thought that if you are an incredible teacher, it makes me less of one; that your creativity reduces the uniqueness of my work, or that your success threatens mine. We live in a society where we are regularly pitted against one another in competition. This is true, even in education. Over a year ago, out of 20 finalists, I was named the Hawkins Educator of the Year. I rarely talk about this honor, and the official plaque with my name on it sits at the bottom of my desk drawer where it has been since I first brought it to school. I simply cannot bring myself to hang it up because, you see, in my mind, if I am the Educator of the Year, it somehow seems to imply that those around me are less, and that is simply not true. Why not 20 winners? Why not 200? Why not all of us? Ultimately, it is only in giving up the idea that there isn’t enough to go around that allows us to “step into a universe of possibility.” (p. 23)

Being a Contribution

Without the inevitable competition that scarcity thinking necessitates, we can let go of the notions of success and failure, and instead focus on the more achievable concept of being a contribution.

“The drive to be successful and the fear of failure are, like the head and tail of a coin, inseparably linked.” (p. 56) It seems nearly impossible to let go of the importance of success. Isn’t this the whole purpose of living – to be successful? Perhaps not financially per se, but to be successful in each of our roles – as a spouse, parent, friend, colleague, teacher, doctor, lawyer, etc? This list could go on and on. Just thinking about being successful in all the possible ways feels exhausting, but, without that, what is it all about? Isn’t success the whole point? The Zanders say no. They suggest that we replace that entire concept. “All at once I found that the fearful question, ‘Is it enough?’ and the even more fearful question, ‘Am I loved for who I am, or for what I have accomplished?’ could both be replaced with the joyful question, ‘How will I be a contribution today?’” (p. 57) How much easier it is to think about simply being a contribution each day, rather than getting it all just right. I wish I could tell you that I have mastered this perspective shift, but I have not – I’m not even close. That’s why my book is falling apart; I have to keep returning to it to remind myself that there’s a different way. As the book notes, it is a “discipline of the spirit” (p.62) that is transformative. The one thing that I have discovered is that there is great joy is saying yes – in making myself a contribution to others. So often, I come across the advice to “set boundaries,” “know your limits,” “learn to say no.” Each time I hear this, I want to say, “Why?” Why on Earth would I say no to something that will help? What would happen if we all just said yes to one another?” I get teased about this socialist-type philosophy of relationships, but why not “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need?” Beau said it best on a summer evening when I was overwhelmed by a time-sensitive and monumental work task that had nothing to do with him. He offered to come and help. I protested, until he clearly and firmly said, “Shut up, Krista. We’re a team. We help each other.” Being a contribution allows us to use our ability to meet another’s need. It leads to relationships that are rooted in the premise of “I’ve got you” – when you have a need, I am there to contribute. 

Being a contribution, to individuals or to the world in general, occurs most easily through calling on our Passion. This is how the Zanders describe the process of giving way to passion: “Notice where you are holding back, and let go. Release those barriers of self that keep you separate and in control, and let the vital energy of passion surge through you connecting you to all beyond.” (p. 114)

Please allow me to be the first to say that the idea of “letting go” sounds utterly terrifying. And yet, I know how it feels when I have done it. It feels like flying – like being lifted by an ever-present current, so that no matter what risks I take, I cannot fall. Why is it so hard to trust that process?   And while I don’t believe in magic – I only believe in hard work – tapping into passion seems to elicit a kind of timeless magic. “The life force for humankind is perhaps nothing more or less than the passionate energy to connect, express, and communicate. Enrollment is that life force at work, lighting sparks from person to person, scattering light in all directions. “ (p. 139) I don’t believe that we can do this unless we say yes to one another. Let’s give up the concepts of balance and limits in favor of “scattering light in all directions.” We need more light.


And yet sometimes Passion eludes us. Sometimes we get seduced by the siren song of the downward spiral. It is easy to fall into this trap as it can feel so much safer to assume failure. “Downward spiral talk is based on the fear that we will be stopped in our tracks and fall short in the race.” (p. 108) The downward spiral occurs by focusing on the negatives – that same scanning the environment for threats. This leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, which can be paralyzing. This is my great Achilles’ Heel. During the first five weeks of this summer, I compulsively walked the equivalent of several marathons while engaged in countless hours of obsessive rumination on the challenges Gamble was facing at the end of the school year. In the process, I mentally catastrophized the situation such that I had myself nearly convinced that things would never get better, I was powerless to effect change, and that the best recourse was simply to quit trying.   I allowed myself to become fully entranced by Downward Spiral Self-Talk.

The Zanders strategy for addressing the Downward Spiral is through taking responsibility, or what I would call “owning your part.” As comfortable as it is to point fingers and assign blame, responsibility for every conflict and every challenging situation is held by all impacted parties. “You can always grace yourself with responsibility for anything that happens in your life. You can always find within yourself the source of any problem you have.” (p. 152) While on the surface, it may seem that taking personal responsibility might only result in greater discomfort, this is not, in fact, the case. As I frequently tell my children, my students, and myself, “You can only be responsible for you, but you are always responsible for you.” You cannot force anyone else to change, but you have the power to make choices that influence every situation you are a part of. This dispels the feeling of powerlessness that the downward spiral elicits and allows for the emergence of glimmers of hope. Ultimately, this is what knocked me out of my early summer Downward Spiral stupor. What was my role in the situation and what corrective actions did I need to take? Once I was able to answer those questions, I was able to see how I could get the things I was responsible for back on the right track.

I reflect often on the Zanders’ question, “Who am I being that they are not shining?” (p. 74) They being anyone you are engaged with – students, employees, colleagues, friends, family. Essentially, when there is a problem, what is my part? I am ineffective, helpless, and hopeless when I find myself stuck in the blame game – focusing on who is at fault. I open up to possibility and to change when I can see the steps that I need to take to impact the problem. This attitude extends far beyond personal benefits.   “Imagine how profoundly trustworthy you would be to the people who work for (with) you if they felt no problem could arise between you that you were not prepared to own. Imagine how much incentive they would have to cooperate if they knew they could count on you to clear the pathways for accomplishment.” (p. 158-9) The benefits of combating the downward spiral through personal responsibility are far reaching and generate a deep-seated trust that is powerful and inspiring.

Rule #6/How Fascinating

While I certainly acknowledge that the perspective shift the Zanders propose is challenging and requires difficult internal self-reflection and work, they are light-hearted in their approach, providing just one rule, which they call Rule #6. Rule #6 is very simple – “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” (p.79) They prevail upon us to “lighten up,” saying, “Humor and laughter are perhaps the best way we can get over ourselves. Humor can bring us together around our inescapable foibles, confusions, and miscommunications, and especially over the ways in which we find ourselves acting entitled and demanding, or putting other people down, or flying at each other’s throats.” (p. 80) Ummmmm . . . guilty as charged . . . I don’t do Rule #6 so very well. One strategy for getting closer to not “taking yourself so damn seriously,” is the procedure they provide to their students when a mistake has occurred. Fortunately it is simple, humorous, and nearly pain-free. “When they [students] make a mistake, they are to lift their arms in the air, smile, and say, ‘How fascinating!’”(p.31) So, next year, if you see me briskly walking through the hall, with my arms in the air, muttering “How fascinating,” under my breath, understand that this is progress for me. Just continue about your business knowing that I have not lost my mind, I have just screwed up yet again, and am practicing embracing possibility and Rule #6 .

An Invitation to Possibility

I highly recommend that you read this book. It is challenging in the best possible ways. As for me, I’m waiting on the incantation, magic pill, or snake oil that will transform me. Until then, I will keep my trusty copy by my side and continue re-reading the underlined and dog-eared pages, each time trying to get a little closer to living within The Art of Possibility.



Exeter Math Institute: Math or Social Justice?

-by Krista Taylor

“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I’m sorry, what?

It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task.   I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.

Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.

What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.

It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”

Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.

Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B.   Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”

I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”

I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)

Exeter math paper

I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.

The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.FullSizeRender (9)

  • There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
  • There is no direct instruction.
  • There is no modeling.
  • There are no examples.
  • Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.


The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.

But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!

Exeter students are not my students.

Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.

Exeter students are not my students.

The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.

He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”

Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”

His response surprised me. “It’s about culture.  These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem.  I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up.  I wouldn’t have dared.  These kids don’t have that issue.  It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.

“These kids are empowered.  They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power.  They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”

I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.

Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too.   It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.

Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”

IMG_0448 (1)

That was the change in me after three days of practice.

And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.

By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:

“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “

“Are there any other ways to get there?”

“That’s a step I want to process more.”

“That’s really interesting.”

“Are there any other ways to look at this?”

“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”

This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:

“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”

Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.

And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?

What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.

Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.

Exeter Savannah

So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:

  • Begin with just 1 day a week
  • Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
  • Establish small groups that would work together consistently
    • Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
    • Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
    • Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
  • Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
    • Teacher prompts
    • Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
    • Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
  • Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase

I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.

How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.

Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?

What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?

And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then?   Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?

It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”

And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”

And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”

So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.


The Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

-by Krista Taylor

Seeking Courage

The day before winter break this year, I found myself pacing back and forth in the hallway outside of Sylvia’s classroom just before first bell, trying to muster up the courage to go in. I didn’t do it.

I returned to that same spot during my planning bell. This time I managed to get through the classroom door, but wound up just having some silly conversation about something random, and then exiting.

I tried again at lunch thinking surely that the third time would be the charm. I had no greater success.

The night before, I had resolved to have a Difficult Conversation. (see Jack’s post on this topic linked here)

A few days earlier I had popped into Sylvia’s classroom to ask a question, but in the brief time I was there, I had observed students in this class violating several of our basic Building-Wide Expectations. When I corrected them, they told me that they were allowed to do these things in this class.

It bothered me. Not because the students’ behavior was particularly disruptive. It wasn’t. (The rule-breaking in question was about dress code, headphones, and the food and drink policy.) It bothered me because our Building-Wide Expectations are supposed to be just that, “Building-Wide;” they are supposed to be “What We Do Here.”

It would have been easy to just ignore it. Ignoring it was especially tempting because Sylvia was someone who had regularly supported me, helped me out on many occasions, and someone I consider a friend. I wanted to choose what was easy.

Besides, correcting a fellow teacher isn’t even my job, is it? Isn’t that the work of an administrator? Co-workers are under no obligation to hold each other accountable to expectations. Right . . .

This was the argument I had tried to hide behind for days, but it just wasn’t sitting properly with me. How was I helping things by being privately irritated by the actions of someone I like and respect? How was I helping things by not addressing my concerns directly? By failing to do so, I was potentially setting my colleague up for being corrected by an administrator – how was that helpful to her?

Avoiding the Difficult Conversation certainly felt better for me, and likely for Sylvia as well, but was it really better? Was I really being supportive by not saying anything? Was I really being a friend? Was I advocating for the needs of students? Was I really doing my job? Ultimately I decided that I was not, because when it comes right down to it, I do believe that it’s the job of co-workers to hold each other accountable. I believe this, in part, because it is a component of what we agreed as a staff to do for one another back in August of 2013 when, together, we wrote our Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement.

Developing the Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement

Each year, Gamble holds a two-day staff retreat during the summer. The retreat is a combination of professional development and team-building activities. Participation is purely voluntary and unpaid, yet almost our entire faculty attends. This is, in part, because each year, the retreat is led by Gamble staff and is structured around the specific needs of our building. However, I believe that the primary reason for the high-level of attendance is the tremendous commitment of our faculty to honing their craft and to developing our program.

At our retreat in 2013, we had to address the elephant in the room.


The 2012-2013 school year had been challenging. We were preparing for a significant expansion in our junior high – this meant that our existing junior high teams were being disbanded and reformed as new teams. Our ninth and tenth grade team was experiencing partial staff turn-over, and our high school program as a whole was exploring new ways to increase inclusion of students with disabilities. Add to all that the challenges of moving our entire program from one building to another across town, and it is little wonder that we were experiencing stress on a building-wide level. On virtually every team, teachers were angry with one-another. It felt almost like a contagion. Arguments were popping up in committee meetings. Regular “venting” sessions were happening behind closed doors. It didn’t feel good. Anxiety was high. Tempers were short. Frustration was increasing. We were talking about each other rather than to each other, and you could have cut the tension with a knife. Summer couldn’t come soon enough.

As a team-based school, there is very little that is ever done at Gamble by anyone operating in isolation, and this makes us heavily interdependent with one another. Team functionality is critical to our success and well-being as an institution. Part of the natural cycle of teaming is “Storming” – a period of time when conflict and discord emerges within groups. This is not a problem per se – conflict is often what moves us forward, and it can be a powerful part of the growth process. However, we were being profoundly impacted by the storming we were experiencing, and we had become a bit stuck. We needed help navigating through this storming phase.

The summer staff retreat seemed to be the right time and place to talk about our resident pachyderm. As a member of the retreat planning committee, I asked Jack to allow me to lead our staff through a problem-solving process. To this day, I have no idea why he trusted me enough to let me do this.

Once I had the go-ahead, I had to figure out how to guide our entire faculty through one giant, whole-group Difficult Conversation. There was no existing blueprint for this.

After significant reflection, I developed a plan that ensured each of the following:

  • Focus on solutions, not problems: Getting bogged down in identifying problems would only serve to distance us from one another and keep us focused on the negative.
  • Engage all participants in order to enhance buy-in: If we want people to implement change, they must believe in what they are being asked to do; this is easiest when they have had the opportunity to give input.
  • Find a path to consensus: In some situations, making decisions by majority vote is appropriate, but something like this requires that everyone is on board.
  • Provide enough time to allow for a thorough process: It is not helpful, and can be detrimental, to open up a sensitive topic without the resources of time and energy to see the conversation through to resolution.
  • Generate something substantive: It is not enough just to come up with good ideas; there must be some kind of visual repository or tangible product that is developed from those ideas. 

Here is the specific step-by-step process we used to help extricate ourselves from the whole-building storming we were experiencing.

Step 1.) Name the elephant. Like most schools, we have all kindsGSA slide 1 of rules and processes for helping students understand how to interact with one another, but we had nothing that guided our adults. This meant that when we were under stress, we had no protocols to turn to for assistance. We needed to create expectations for ourselves. The first step was simply to identify this as a need and as something that we would all benefit from developing.

Step 2.) Brainstorm. Each participant was asked to record on notecards three explicit actions or behaviors that they believed they needed or wanted from their colleagues.  GSA slide 2The provided prompt was, “What do you most want/need from your colleagues?” The specific process directions were to record up to 3 specific actions or behaviors, phrased positively, that each individual wanted from their colleagues. Each suggestion was to be written on a separate on a separate index card to allow for sorting in the next step.

Step 3.) Identify commonalities. All of the index cards were then collected, shuffled, and redistributed to small groups. Each group went throuGSA slide 3gh their stack of cards identifying responses that were similar, and determining the weight of each category based on the number of comments on that topic. This served several purposes. It gave participants the opportunity to anonymously see each other’s responses. It allowed common threads to begin to emerge. And, most importantly, it got everyone engaged in working collectively on the task.

Step 4.) Consolidate and find common language. Each group reported out and those things that had been identified as important to the majority of people became apparent based on the number of responses. We worked to ensure that individual voices were heard and honored, while still maintaining the value of seeking consensus from the group. We debated word choice. We argued about the importance of specific components. We touched on old, long-buried arguments, and, at times, we stepped on one another’s feelings. This part of the process felt much like tiptoeing through a minefield.


There was angry debate over the importance of including a statement about cultural differences. Several staff members felt that it was critical to have this explicitly stated, while others believed that it was implied in the components we had already agreed upon and was an unnecessary addition. This argument was indicative of the struggles we were experiencing. Of course a statement on cultural awareness was an appropriate thing to include in our agreement. With hindsight, I can’t believe that we were arguing over such a thing. It seems utterly ridiculous now, but at the time it was hotly contested.

As the facilitator, it was challenging to allow the discomfort to be felt and to use it as a catalyst, while not becoming side-tracked from the task, or allowing the work to devolve into a battle between competing agendas. I had to listen hard, carefully re-state, negotiate personalities and old conflicts, and keep pushing toward the goal of establishing shared expectations.

Step 5.) Create a tangible product. Somehow, we made it through – we clarified, we compromised, and we came up with the following statement to identify what was most critical to establishing and sustaining beneficial interactions with one another.

IMG_0439 (1)

“Gamble Montessori Staff Agreement for working collaboratively and supporting each other.  We will utilize effective communication, which is grounded in respectful and professional conversations.  We will strive for excellence while maintaining positive interactions and attitudes and providing each other with instructional support.  We will have empathy for each other, and be open to seeing and celebrating each other’s unique and different perspectives — including cultural ones. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions.”

 Implementation: So we have a Staff Agreement, now what?

 Developing our Staff Agreement was the easy part. Using it to actually guide how we interact is much harder.

This year, on that day before winter break, I never did get brave enough to start the discussion with Sylvia in person. I regret that. Instead I retreated to the safety of electronic communication, and I sent this.

Dear Sylvia,

I feel incredibly uncomfortable about having this difficult conversation.  In fact, I have lurked outside your classroom on 3 different occasions today just trying to get up the courage to address you in person, but I can’t do it.

Here is my concern. When I was in your classroom earlier this week, I saw several things, which are in violation of our school policies — hats, headphones, food that wasn’t a fruit or vegetable.  When I redirected your students, they indicated that this is something that is allowable in your classroom.  Can you help me to understand? Even though you and I don’t teach the same students, it’s really hard and frustrating to uphold the expectations in my classroom when others don’t do the same because it sends a message that the expectations really aren’t that important.

My intention is not to come across as hyper-critical, but rather to seek understanding and solutions. Please know that I stand on no pedestal here.  My classroom is not a perfect place; we are all “works in progress.”  I express my concerns to you based on the understanding that part of each of our jobs here is to push each other to get better at what we do.

I love working with you, and I love the ways you provide me with assistance and support.   I just didn’t feel like I could let this concern go un-discussed, and I apologize for not having the courage to do so in person.

I hope you have a wonderful break, and I look forward to seeing you next semester.

This was what I received in response:

Thank you for your candor, and you are always welcomed and invited to share your opinions and concerns with me.  I respect you and your opinions perhaps more than anyone else at this school.

Let me address your concerns although it really is just a matter of my shortcomings.

I do not allow headphones in my class, at least not normally.  On the day you were here, before your arrival, a student had asked if they could listen to headphones that day, and I said “Yes.”  Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I felt like on that particular day it was okay for them to carve out some space for themselves to review.

As far as hats go, the problem is that I generally do not notice them.  It is like someone’s shoes, or socks, or belt–they just don’t seem to register in my active attention.  When I do notice them, I ask them to be removed.

Food is another one I struggle with.  Since Cincinnati has a 53% teen poverty rate (the second highest in the United States), I feel like I never know if a student has eaten on any given day.  Even if the school provides them with breakfast and lunch, a student may not have eaten enough calories in a 24-hour period.  Because of these things, I am always hesitant as to what I should do.

Rest assured I appreciate your input.  Out of the 20 emails that were unopened when I logged into my Inbox, yours was the first I read.  I am taking your concerns to heart.

This wasn’t an easy exchange – they’re called “difficult conversations” for a reason. I felt a lingering sense of awkwardness in this relationship for months afterward, but it was an honest awkwardness. There was no hostile residue of unspoken concerns, nor was there any venting to others. (We all know what that sounds like, “You’ll never believe what I saw going on in so-and-so’s classroom!”) Ultimately, I may never know whether or not the issues were resolved, but that matters less to me than knowing that I directly expressed my concerns. Was it my job to address this? Some would say no. I don’t think it’s always clear, but I find myself guided by what Jack says about things like this: We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.”

That’s the goal, of course, to get better at what we do.   Sometimes helping each other to do this feels good. Sometimes it doesn’t. The staff agreement provides guidance regarding how it is we’re supposed to “empower each other to help us get better at what we do;” it gives us parameters to fall back on when we forget what it is we are supposed to do for one another.

The Staff Agreement reminds us that . . .

  • We need to talk to each other, not about each other
  • Rather than allowing colleagues to vent to us, we need to gently prompt them to address their concerns directly
  • Much of the time when feelings are hurt, it isn’t intentional
  • Our differences make us stronger, and better able to do our jobs
  • We have a responsibility to support each other and to maintain high expectations
  • When we focus on the positive, it improves the environment for each of us

We must empower each other to help us get better at what we do.

These things are not easy to do. But they are the foundation of institutional integrity.